Big Sky Conference

BIGNELL BORN, BOBCAT BRED: Former walk-on becomes Montana State legend


BOZEMAN — Dallas Goedert is a mountain of a man, a Goliath who appeared impossible to slay as he continued to run through Bobcat after Bobcat.

The 6-foot-5, 265-pound senior tight end is considered one of, if not the top tight end prospect in all of college football. In Montana State’s 2017 home opener, the FCS All-American caught nine passes in the first three quarters to stake South Dakota State to a 24-7 lead.

But Mac Bignell fears no man. Not Cooper Kupp, the current Los Angeles Rams’ standout rookie wide receiver that Bignell blasted for the first tackle for loss in league play of his now decorated career back in 2015. Not Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly’s All-American fullback who Bignell stuffed in the backfield twice during MSU’s 2015 win in Bozeman. Not North Dakota All-American running back John Santiago, who Bignell has smeared behind the line of scrimmage four times in his career. And he certainly does not fear Goedert, an intimidating physical specimen who weights at least 50 more pounds than Bignell.

As SDSU tried to close out a win in early September, Jacks’ quarterback Taryn Christion continued to throw the ball to his physical tight end. As Montana State tried to rally, Bignell once again showed his fearlessness. On a tight end screen, Bignell filled with reckless abandon and flushed Goedert to the ground for a three-yard loss. Six plays later, SDSU ran the same play and this time, Bignell cut Goedert in half like a freshly sharpened knife. The biggest, baddest man in Bobcat Stadium limped to the sideline.

As the crowd of nearly 20,000 adorn in gold for MSU’s night game “Gold Rush” opener boomed in adoration, Bignell calmly participated in the celebration of his teammates. But to him, the roar fell on almost deaf ears.

“I can remember my teammates telling me how loud it gets when we make big plays on defense,” Bignell said. “But it all sounds the same to me.”

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell tackle South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

Bignell’s journey is one out of a Treasure State storybook. The youngest boy of a family steeped in Montana State lineage defies the odds by emerging from a 124-person Montana town to star at a Class C high school just up the road in a rural community of just over 300. The 8-man stud gets no attention from colleges but believes in himself to such a degree that he won’t be denied.

Once at MSU, he experiences a position change, then a coaching change, never listening to the detractors who he likely couldn’t hear very well anyway.

Mac Bignell’s journey from walk-on to star is extraordinary in its own right. Add in the fact that he is the fifth Bignell in the last 10 years to stand out at MSU, each one living and playing in the shadow of Joe Bignell, Mac’s All-American tight end father, and the latest Bignell’s ascension to Bobcat legend is unforgettable.

When one considers that Bignell has battled partial but progressive genetic hearing loss for his entire life and throughout a career that has seen him etch his name in Montana State lore, his tale becomes truly distinctive.

“When you first initially hear about it or think about it, you are going, ‘well shoot, that’s going to be hard to coach a kid that can’t hear you’,” former Montana State linebackers coach Kane Ioane said. “Then when you get around him and you realize this is a guy who has learned how to use this disability and turn it into an advantage for him, meaning that he knows that he has to focus and concentrate that much more than everyone else around him because he can’t just sit there and not listen. When he is taking coaching, he has to really be in tune with you and really listen to everything you are saying and hang on every word, which is actually what you want all your players to do.”

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell with former linebackers coach Kane Ioane/by Brooks Nuanez

Since breaking into the lineup in 2015 as a third-year sophomore, Bignell has shown an uncanny knack for instinctual plays, many of which come behind the opponent’s line of scrimmage. His quick-twitch athleticism, he ability to diagnose plays in a split second because of his elite eye placement and his peerless reaction time has helped the undersized yet astoundingly physical outside linebacker become one of the Big Sky’ Conference’s best playmakers.

“When he is out there, he is able to block out everything else and he is able to lock in on what’s in front of him,” Ioane said. “He is also able to emphasize the biggest aspect of his game, which is his eyes and really clue in on his keys on any given play.

“The way he plays the game, his absolutely reckless abandon, fearlessly flying around with a never say die type attitude to the way he is off the field, the way he represents himself in every aspect I think is exactly what you look for in a Bobcat.”

As Montana State enters its season finale against bitter rival Montana on Saturday in Bozeman, Bignell has one more game in blue and gold to add to his already impressive statistical accomplishments. In his senior campaign, the preseason All-Big Sky selection has 83 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception he returned for a game-sealing touchdown against Idaho State earlier this season.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell & safety Bryson McCabe hits Montana wide receiver Josh Horner in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

“He’s one of the best if not the best player I’ve ever played with,” MSU All-Big Sky senior captain safety Bryson McCabe, Bignell’s roommate the last two years, said. “Mac is a heck of a player. His instincts are second to none.”

To a certain extent, Bignell deems his perceived incapacity as an athletic advantage. He is not distracted by the ovations of the spectators in the arenas he plays in. He consciously acknowledged his hearing loss at three years of age and began working on it, both by remedying his speech and by heightening his other senses, particularly when it comes to watching and observing others.

That has translated onto the football field in a tangible and memorable way. He enters Saturday’s rivalry showdown with 285 career tackles, including 130 solo stops and 47 tackles for loss.

“I think I can focus better,” said Bignell, who speaks articulately despite the impediment. “It taught me at a young age to read body language because everyone has a pattern. In football, once you figure out their pattern, you can start making plays.”

Every November, Joe Bignell would take his three sons Parker, Nate and Mac to a part of the sprawling cattle ranch in Avon, Montana that Joe used to operate with his brothers, Jim and John, to “cut the poles down”, as Mac remembers. After gathering the fallen trees, the Bignell boys would spend chilly afternoons chopping the logs.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell celebrates a fumble recovery with his brother, former defensive tackle Nate Bignell in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

During those outings, the Bignells — as she grew older, Joe began bringing his fourth child, daughter Frankie, now a basketball player at Montana Western, along as well — would often listen to Bobcat football games on the radio. Late November usually meant the annual Cat-Griz showdown but as the kids grew older, the broadcasts became more heartbreaking to listen to.

Joe himself enjoyed impressive success in the Novembers of his youth, particularly when it came to playing the hated Grizzlies. In his senior year in 1984, the intimidating 6-foot-4, 245-pound tight end set Montana State records by catching 13 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown from standout quarterback Kelly Bradley. That afternoon, MSU rallied from a 24-12 halftime deficit to post a 34-24 win over Montana, the Bobcats’ second of three straight wins over the Griz.

Joe Bignell finished that season as an All-American with school records of 88 catches for 1,149 yards as MSU surged to its third and most recent national championship.

RELATED: A MOMENT IN TIME: An oral history from the memories of the 1984 Bobcats

In 1986, the Griz snapped MSU’s winning streak with a 59-28 win in Missoula at its brand new venue, Washington-Grizzly Stadium. For the next 16 years, through Griz whoopings and ‘Cat close calls, Montana State did not taste victory.

One of Mac Bignell’s earliest childhood memories came as a seven-year-old cutting wood in 2002. Joe would run the chainsaw while Nate would haul the big pieces and put then on the tractor. Parker would run the wood chopper while Mac and Frankie would take the logs and stack them on the horse trailer.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell records a tackle for loss on Cal Poly running back Kori Garcia in 2016/by Brooks Nuanez

“I like the hard work,” Mac said nearly 17 years later. “You are outside all day. Growing up, you kind of take it for granted because you are always around it. Then you go to college and that’s when you start missing it because you are in a classroom trapped inside all day.”

The only breaks granted would be to tune into the Cat-Griz radio broadcast. But the losing had become emotionally excruciating if not tangibly difficult to listen to for Joe, who suffers the same genetic progressive hearing loss as Mac.

Mac remembers the clear, cold day in Avon in 2002 as clearly as the early winter air. He remembers doing his duties in the wood gathering process but doing his best to perk up his ears to hear updates on the game. In the third quarter, Junior Adams secured a perfectly thrown ball from Travis Lulay on a slant and raced the rest of the way for a 53-yard touchdown to give MSU a 10-0 lead. The Bobcats would hang on for a 10-7 win. “The Streak” was finally over.

“That was one of the greatest memories I’ve had,” Bignell said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad so happy.”

Mac and his two brothers attended the school in Avon with Jim’s two boys, Clay and Brian, along with John’s boys, Carter and Cole. At one point, there was at least one Bignell in all but one grade – kindergarten through eighth grade – in the four-room school house. Mac’s mother, Patti, served as the school’s clerk and secretary.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

Avon is an hour from Missoula, so most of the other kids in the tiny school in the town of 124 grew up rooting for the Grizzlies. Bignell remembers recess football games would usually turn into Cat-Griz imaginations and because of the family’s roots, the Bignells would take on the rest.

“Where we grew up, it was mostly Grizzly fans so it was always Bignells versus everybody,” Nate Bignell remembers. “It fueled the rivalry. We’d be mad because we had to deal with a bunch of Grizzly fans and made us want to play for Montana State so much more and play against the Grizzlies.”

The games would most often morph from two-hand touch to tackle.

“We are all tough ranch kids,” Mac said. “Even the girls would get in there and start tackling you. It usually ended up in a fight. I lost a lot of recess periods from being too competitive.”

Joe’s hearing loss was not identified until after his father died, his mother remarried and he moved from a ranch in Gimlet Creek to Deer Lodge. His speech is still affected today. Patti identified Mac’s hearing impairment at the age of three and had it diagnosed at school for the deaf and blind in Great Falls. More than two decades ago, the specialists there told Joe and Patti that Mac would struggle with school and had a very slim chance of graduating from college.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

“It was definitely a struggle I had and I had to work through it,” Bignell said. “When I was younger they would take one of those wooden sticks at the doctor’s office and legit put my tongue where it needed to be.

“I can hide it pretty well now. One on one is really easy. Where it really affects me is big groups and multiple people are talking and I can’t focus on which one. That’s where my hearing loss affects me the most.”

Attending the Avon school until sixth grade proved advantageous to Bignell because of the one-on-one attention he received. In 2008, Joe decided to split from the ranch he shared with his brothers to expand his business to the plot of land in Hall, home to 500 head of cattle that the family still resides on. The closest school then became Drummond about 40 minutes away, where all four kids attended high school.

Drummond has three times as many people as Avon but is far from a booming metropolis. The high school counts 68 students currently. The one-on-one attention continued, as did the blossoming of an elite athlete as the latest Bignell boy made his way through the Class C ranks.

“The hearing loss is probably more significant for him in the classroom than it is on the football field,” Montana State second-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “He’s relied on the non-verbal communication and coaches are loud guys. When you are talking to somebody, you are looking at him and he has the ability to read lips pretty well. It’s not a total hearing loss so if you are yelling at Mac, he’ll hear you.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

“But I think the biggest strides he’s made have been in the classroom coming from a small school environment, growing up in Hall, going to school in Avon and Drummond. I’m sure it probably wasn’t very hard for him because his class sizes were probably under 10. It was pretty easy to have one-on-one attention so adjusting to being in a university environment was really hard for him.”

Since Choate took over before last season, he has acknowledged players who attain a 3.0 grade-point average or higher as “Scholar Ballers”. Last spring, Bignell finally made the board, notching a 3.5 grade-point average in business marketing.

“He took more pride in that than he probably does his all-conference accolades,” Choate said. “He’s been able to overcome that deficiency he has in hearing not just on the football field but in the classroom as well.”

Drummond captured four Class C 8-man titles between 2004 and 2009 behind the all-time play of running back Chase Reynolds, who went on to a successful career with the Griz and then in the NFL, and contributions from key families like the Bignells and the Verlanics.

Parker played on the ’09 title team before spending one year as a tight end at Montana State. He then transitioned into rodeo, like the Bignells’ other cousin Ty Erickson, now the No. 1 steer wrestler in the world. Nate Bignell was a junior on the 2009 title team before signing with MSU in 2011. He wrapped up his Bobcat career as a defensive tackle in 2015, playing three seasons with Mac. Nate is now an assistant coach for Flint Creek, the 8-man co-op between Drummond and Phillipsburg that will take on Forsyth in the Class C state title game on Saturday.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

Mac Bignell was a freshman at Drummond in 2009 when the Trojans won their last state championship. He started the next three seasons, playing safety as a sophomore, quarterback and linebacker as a junior and senior, diligently sticking with his speech therapy all along the way.

In 2012, he earned first-team all-state honors by throwing for 1,052 yards and nine touchdowns and rushing for 1,540 yards and 44 touchdowns. As Drummond’s do-everything middle linebacker in the 8-man game, Bignell piled up 197 tackles, 10 interceptions and forced three fumbles his final prep season.

“I knew he was something special right away,” Nate Bignell said. “Watching him play in high school, he was making those type of plays ever since his senior, junior year of high school. How fast he reads plays, you have that or you don’t and Mac has had that his whole life. It’s natural to him. It makes him twice as fast.”

Despite his eye-popping production, only Montana Western head coach Ryan Norse recruited the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder. Bignell took a visit to MSU in hopes of following in Joe, Clay, Brian, Parker and Nate’s footsteps with the Bobcat football team. Finally, a walk-on offer came.

Montana State senior linebacker Mac Bignell returning an interception for a touchdown vs. Idaho State in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

“I was pretty set on going to Western because that was my only offer,” Bignell said. “That’s when Coach Norse was down there and he wanted me really bad. He was calling me every single day. Then my dad sat me down one day and said, ‘No, you belong in Bozeman.’ And it’s been one of the greatest decisions of my life.”

Bignell struggled initially in all aspects at Montana State. In the classroom, he had a hard time acclimating to learning in crowded lecture halls. In practice, the talented offense of the 2013 Bobcats led by the memorable offensive trio of quarterback DeNarius McGhee, running back Cody Kirk and wide receiver Tanner Bleskin had their way with Bignell and the scout team. He did not seem to be on the same trajectory as Clay, an All-Big Sky middle linebacker and captain of the 2011 Big Sky champion Bobcats or Brian, a slippery defensive tackle who notched five sacks for the 2012 Big Sky champions or even Nate, a two-year starter on the interior of MSU’s defensive line.

Mac had made almost no upward movement at safety on the MSU depth chart. He was not in favor with former MSU safeties coach and defensive coordinator Jamie Marshall. He had no way of showing his rare talents.

Because of the graduation of Alex Singleton, Cole Moore, Na’a Moeakiola and Michael Foster, Ioane’s group was thin entering spring drills in 2015.

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

“I said, ‘You know what? I’ll take him at Sam and see what he can do,” Ioane remembers. “Right away, he showed the willingness to be physical, showed the willingness to play the way I wanted linebackers to play. Then it was just a matter of teaching him the position.”

The decision instantly became affirmed. Bignell stood out from the first day playing his new position — a spot he likened as similar to playing middle linebacker in 8-man football — and quite literally every day since. He has not missed a practice and has nary missed a defensive snap since.

“He plays with great leverage all the time,”said Ioane, who left MSU after 17 years as either a player or coach this past off-season for a position on Chris Petersen’s staff as a defensive analyst at Washington. “He plays in great football position with his pads down and he plays with a great base underneath him. On top of that, he plays with great hands as far as his physicality and his ability to use his hands to get off blocks. The combination of great leverage and great hands makes him extremely difficult to block and that’s what puts him in a great position to make plays all the time.”

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

Bignell managed honorable mention All-Big Sky honors as a sophomore despite notching 20 tackles for loss, the league’s top totals. His 101 tackles led the Bobcats, yet he was slighted likely because MSU’s otherwise lackluster defense disappointed, keying Montana State’s 5-6 finish.

Last season, Bignell earned second-team All-Big Sky honors by piling up 14.5 tackles for loss among his team-best 97 stops. He has also consistently forced fumbles; his strip of SDSU running back Brady Mengarelli gave him MSU’s all-time career record with nine forced fumbles. All the while, he has continued to build up his body, getting up to 218 pounds at the start of the season after walking on at nearly 30 pounds lighter.

“Mac is everything right about the state of Montana,” MSU defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Ty Gregorak said. “He has represented not just his high school, not just his hometown but his family name. And his family name is Bobcat through and through.

“He is such a great success story in my mind. He’s an undersized walk-on from Hall, Montana. He has worked himself into one of the best outside linebackers in the Big Sky. It’s a real compliment to him. The guy bleeds blue and gold. You can see that every time he plays. He’s a role model to a lot of guys.”

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

Gregorak said “franchises from all over the NFL” have called or stopped by Bozeman to inquire about the prowling, twitchy yet light outside linebacker. Gregorak himself spent 12 seasons coaching at Montana, including the five years Reynolds spent as a standout back for the Griz.

After his graduation, Reynolds signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent before spending the better part of six seasons with the Rams. Gregorak likens Bignell to Reynolds because of their shared high school alma mater, their salt of the earth work ethic and their ability to turn heads on special teams.

Bignell has three classes next spring to finish his degree in business marketing. After Saturday’s showdown drops the final curtain on his career as a Bobcat, his mindset will shift into trying to extend his football playing days. He plans on training twice a day, six days a week at former Bobcat and NFL linebacker Dane Fletcher’s training facility in Bozeman, The Pitt in anticipation of MSU’s Pro Day in March. Bignell wants to get back up to 220 or 225 pounds before scouts arrive.

He is so confident in his own abilities to solidify a spot in the NFL, he said he has “not even thought about” what he might do after he graduates if football somehow does not work out.

“I’m just going to be a guy who’s looking for any way to get on the field, get on a roster any way he can,” he said. “I want to bring that small-town, ranching mentality that you have to show up every single day and work your butt off and hope for a little luck too along the way.”

Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell/by Brooks Nuanez

It has taken everything but luck for Mac Bignell to reach this point. It will take everything but luck for him to cap his Montana State career on Senior Day with a win over the Grizzlies. Through the relentless, hard-driving confidence bred within him by the pride he takes in being a Bobcat, the satisfaction he derives from pushing his physical limits alongside his teammates, the respect he gives to representing his hallowed family name and the adversity he’s overcome to reach his final rivalry skirmish, Bignell has carved out a place all his own in Bobcat lore.

“He’s his own player and his own man,” Nate Bignell said. “He came in there with no recognition. He’s made his own name for himself. With the Bignell name in there, he made it his. Instead of just A Bignell, he’s Mac Bignell.”

Brooks Nuanez and Bill Lamberty contributed to the reporting of this story. Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

Recommended for you